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An Ephesian Imprisonment of Paul 



THE traveler who spends a day or more wandering 
through the ruins of the old city of Ephesus, as they 
are now uncovered, visits a square tower on a small 
elevation, and learns from his fluent guide that it is "the 
prison of St. Paul." Not recollecting anything in the New 
Testament which speaks of any such imprisonment, and 
noting the remark of the guide-book that the tradition is 
"pure fancy," he dismisses it from his mind. 1 

But how did such a legend arise? Its appearance is all 
the more difficult to account for because of the absence of 
any direct allusion to it in the New Testament. If there 
were any mention of it in the canonical accounts of Paul's 
life, we should set the guide's identification aside as one 
more groundless attempt to make definite a biblical reference. 
Of course I am not here concerned with the little elevation 
remarked upon by the fluent guide, for that can hardly have 
been a prison. Our concern is with the larger question as 
to the historical probability of any imprisonment of the 
apostle anywhere in Ephesus. For there must have been 
a traditional imprisonment already in men's minds when 
they located it at this particular spot. 

Such a tradition may be found in the so-called Acts of 
Paul and Thecla. Professor Bacon has kindly reminded 
me of the imprisonment of Paul at Ephesus mentioned 
in these Acts. Professor Ramsay is of the opinion that 

1 The suggestion for this article I owe to Professor Deissmann of Berlin, who 
holds Ephesus to be the place of writing of the four imprisonment epistles 
(mainly on the ground of the statements in regard to Onesimus, which Paul 
makes in the epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon). 


much of the local detail in the Acts is historically accurate 
(cf. E.B. art Apocrypha). The legendary sufferings of 
Paul which are a part of the tendency of the time to picture 
the Apostles as martyrs may most naturally be regarded as 
founded upon some basis of historical fact. In these Acts 
it is, in fact, "hard to distinguish where history ends and 
romance begins" (Ramsay, St. Paul, the Traveller and the 
Roman Citizen, p. 26 ; cf. also p. 106). The ruin at Ephesus 
to-day and the imprisonment mentioned in this document 
are two witnesses, quite possibly independent of each other, 
both testifying to the existence of a tradition that Paul was 
at some time imprisoned in Ephesus. 

For those of us who are not quite convinced by Harnack's 
latest word and who still hold to the Ephesian destination 
of the sixteenth chapter of Romans, Rom. 16 7 is another 
indication of an imprisonment of Paul at Ephesus. " Salute 
Andronicus and Junius, my kinsmen, and my fellow-pris- 
oners." It would at least not be unnatural to suppose that 
in sending greetings to these men of Ephesus who had been 
in imprisonment with him, he is referring to an Ephesian 
imprisonment. If not, where had these men been in prison 
with Paul ? 

Further we note in this chapter that he salutes Prisca 
and Aquila (vs. i), " who," he says, " for my life laid down 
their own necks." As Paul is writing this also to Ephesus 
it was probably in Ephesus that these two had risked their 
lives to save Paul. They had been with Paul during his 
whole three years of work in Ephesus, on his third journey 
(cf. Acts 18 19 with 1 Cor. 16 19). 

There are many other indications of the trouble which 
Paul had in Ephesus. The account in Acts would indicate 
serious persecution at two different points in his Ephesian 
sojourn, once when he was obliged to leave the Synagogue 
and go to the School of Tyrannus (Acts 19 9, " Some were 
hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before 
the multitude ") ; and a second time when Demetrius, the 
silversmith, invoked the mob spirit in order to save his 
business, vs. 23 ft. Of particular interest in connection with 


the latter uprising is the fact that Aristarchus was one of 
those seized by the mob (Acts 19 29), and that in Col. 4 10 
Paul mentions Aristarchus, certainly the same man, as his 
fellow-prisoner, "Aristarchus my fellow-prisoner saluteth 
you." (I shall refer to this verse again.) 

Further, 1 Cor. 16 9 (written from Ephesus) speaks of 
avriKeifievoi iroWol, "many adversaries." Again in 1 Cor. 
15 32 (iOripioftdxqtra), he says he has fought with wild beasts 
in Ephesus. 

In 2 Cor. 1 8 ff., he speaks of his tfxfyts iv ty 'Ao-ta, " our 
affliction which befell us in Asia . . . that we despaired 
even of life. . . . We . . . have had the sentence of death 
within ourselves . . . (but) God delivered (ipvaaro, res- 
cued) us out of so great a death," language whose most 
natural interpretation points to the apostle's having been 
held in durance and having been subsequently delivered. 

In the same letter he says (11 23) that he has been very 
often in prison Qpv\aical<i Tre/oto-o-OTe/aeoy). (He said that 
before either the Csesarean or the Roman imprisonment.) 
If we suppose an imprisonment in Ephesus, we are but 
localizing one more of these imprisonments of which he 
speaks. 2 

The epistles of the captivity are commonly dated from 
Rome. Now how much better does an imprisonment at 
Ephesus suit the conditions presupposed in these writings. 
Paul was in prison when he wrote the little note to Phile- 
mon about the runaway slave who had come to him. The 
accepted way of deciding where the letter to Philemon was 
written, is to take the two great imprisonments of Paul 
(one at Caesarea, and one at Rome) and to ask the decisive 
question, as Jiilicher does, " Where would a runaway slave 
from Colossse be most likely to make his way, to Cassarea ? 
or to Rome ? " And Jiilicher decides that he would be more 
likely to run to Rome than to Csesarea. Ergo, the letter was 

2 Those who accept the theory that the author of the Book of Acts desired 
to exhibit the Boman government in a favorable attitude toward Christianity 
will on that theory be easily able to account for the omission of an Ephesian 
imprisonment of Paul if it took place, as is most likely, at the hands of the 
Boman authorities. 


written at Rome. Of course, in seeking to settle the question 
a great many special matters ought first to be thoroughly 
studied, e.g. the free distribution of bread at Rome, and 
whether there is discoverable any marked tendency of runa- 
way slaves in all parts of the Empire, to go to the imperial 

But with the data which we have is it not a hard supposi- 
tion that Onesimus would run either to Csesarea or to Rome? 
Think of the distance from Colossse in the interior of Asia 
Minor to the iEgean coast, a week's journey, even with good 
horses ! And then think of the distance from that coast, 
whether by sea or by land to Rome, on the west coast of the 
second great Mediterranean peninsula ! Where would a 
poor slave get the money to make this journey which to-day 
would perhaps be paralleled, if a boy from a St. Louis family 
ran away to London or Paris. And how would Paul get 
the means to send him such a long journey back ? These 
have always been serious difficulties in the Rome-hypothesis. 
But Csesarea could offer nothing better. Ephesus, on the 
other hand, would be a most natural destination for the 
escaping slave. He would make for the nearest town. In 
Onesimus' day there was no well-known free soil to which 
he could flee and be safe, as our negroes fled to Canada 
before the Civil War. Onesimus' horizon would not be 
large. He would want to go far, but Ephesus, of which 
he must have known and heard not a little, would surely 
be his limit. He could go the whole distance on foot. He 
would not need to be at the expense or risk the exposure 
of embarking on board a ship. He would have been more 
or less familiar by hearsay with Ephesus, the greatest city 
of Asia, while none of his fellows are likely ever to have 
been in Rome. 

There are other facts which would speak for Ephesus as 
the place of writing. Paul expresses to Philemon a lively 
hope (vs. 22) that he will soon visit him. " Get ready the 
guest-room," he says, " for I hope that through your prayers 
I shall be granted unto you." The request would sound 
perfectly natural and reasonable if written at Ephesus and 


in the expectation of a near release, but written from 
Rome it would have an artificial, unrealistic, and almost 
jesting air totally foreign to the intense and practical soul 
of Paul. Paul's plan of operation, moreover, so far as 
we know it, was to go from Rome westward to Spain 
(Rom. 15 28). The only reason scholars (e.g. Lightfoot) 
have had for supposing him to have changed that general 
plan lies in the long-standing theory that the epistles of 
the captivity were written from Rome, a supposition which, 
of course, begs the whole question at issue. 

Wherever we put the letter to Philemon we must put the 
letter to the Colossians and the letter to the Ephesians 
(granted their genuineness). Paul would not, of course, 
have written a letter to the Ephesians from Ephesus. But 
that Ephesus was the sole destination of "Ephesians," I 
think scarcely any one would hold in view of the textual 
uncertainty of ev 'E^eirp and the impersonal nature of the 
letter. Marcion's identification of this letter with the letter 
to Laodicea mentioned in Colossians (4 16) appeals to me 
very strongly. The introductory sentence in Ephesians 
would seem to indicate a particular church which he had 
not yet visited, "Having heard of the faith in the Lord 
which is in you." 

Colossians and Ephesians each mention his bonds (Eph. 3 1 
4 l 6 20, Col. 4 3. is). Ephesians mentions them as some- 
thing so well known and so near at hand that the readers 
are like to "faint" at his "tribulations" (3 13), and he 
writes to "comfort" their "hearts" (6 22). This language, 
if addressed to a comparatively near church like that of 
Laodicea, would very fittingly describe an Ephesian impris- 
onment. On the other hand, does it not seem unnatural, 
to say the least, to think of the apostle as using such expres- 
sions in a letter which would take several weeks to reach 
its destination? To the present writer there is to be felt 
in them a sense of relative nearness in distance like that 
already referred to in the words " Get ready the guest-room " 
(Phile. 22). 

Again, considering the statement in Acts, that Paul 


carried on the evangelization of Asia from Ephesus as a 
center (cf. Acts. 19 10), it would seem natural for him to 
say (Col. 2 l) " how greatly I strive for you and for them 
at Laodicea and for as many as have not seen my face in 
the flesh," i.e. in Asia. But written from Rome it would 
be a little strange that he should speak in general of all 
those who had not seen his face, i.e. all in the whole empire. 
From the view point of Ephesus the classification of the 
people in Colossae and Laodicea, and perhaps we may say 
western Asia Minor in general, among those who had seen 
his face and those who had not, seems reasonable and natural, 
for he had covered that territory fairly well. But such a 
classification of the entire population of the Roman Empire 
seems a little absurd notwithstanding the apostle's Herculean 
efforts to reach its many provinces. 

Here may be added a consideration of the personal salu- 
tations in Colossians 4 (= Phile. 24). Three, only, of 
the names have any bearing on the question. Tychicus 
(Col. 4 7) is with Paul. Apart from two indefinite refer- 
ences to Tychicus in the pastoral epistles, all we know of 
him comes from Acts 20 4. That is, the only definite 
information we have concerning him is that he was with 
Paul at Ephesus and accompanied him when he left Ephesus 
for Macedonia. 

Aristarchus (Col. 4 10) is a fellow-prisoner of Paul at the 
time he writes. Now Aristarchus we know from Acts to 
have been in Ephesus, and to have been seized by the mob 
at the time of the uprising (Acts 19 29). And further we 
know from Acts that he left Ephesus at the time Paul did. 
The only other mention of Aristarchus in Acts or in the 
New Testament is that he sailed in the same boat with 
"us" from Csesarea. That boat went only as far as the 
coast of Asia. There is no indication that he was a prisoner 
on the boat, or that he ever went to Rome, much less that 
he was in prison in Rome with Paul. In fact, the positive 
indication of Acts 27 2 is that Aristarchus went only as far 
as Asia, for the statement that Aristarchus was with " us " 
is in the same sentence with, and in a way subordinated to, 


the statement that the ship was sailing "to the places on 
the coast of Asia," for he was "a Macedonian." The expla- 
nation of his presence on the hoat is that he was on his way 

Further, Epaphras, whose home is at Colossse (Col. 4 12, 
"who is one of you"), is Paul's fellow-prisoner (Phile. 23). 
Certainly it is far more natural to suppose that a man of 
Colossse would be in prison in the great center of Asia 
Minor than in Rome. 

The problem of Philippians stands by itself. There may 
have been a detachment of the "Pretorian guard" in 
Ephesus. The phrase " Csesar's household " would make no 
great difficulty, olxfa is not the word for palace, and 
imperial officers were in later inscriptions called slaves of 
Csesar. But the general situation of Paul is different in 
Philippians, and we may perhaps concede that it was written 
from Rome while still holding to an Ephesian origin of the 
other three. He is much less hopeful than in Philemon 
and Colossiarts. Nevertheless we ought perhaps also to 
remember that it would be much easier for the Philippians 
to hear of Paul's need in Ephesus and minister to it, than 
that word should travel four times between Rome and 
Philippi, a journey of several weeks at least. The whole 
paragraph (Phil. 2 19-30) receives new light and meaning 
if read with the possibility in mind that it may have been 
written at Ephesus. May we not use again in this connec- 
tion the argument that the supposition of a place at a 
much shorter distance from Philippi than Rome was, gives 
a decidedly more practical atmosphere to the apostle's hope 
of seeing his readers again and to his thanks for their 
solicitude and for their actual ministrations ? 

Though the evidence gives no mathematical certainty, 
the writer does not doubt that when the question has once 
been carefully and frankly considered, Ephesus will ap- 
pear to be a far more probable place for the writing of 
Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians than either Rome or 
Caesarea. The argument is cumulative. That Paul was 
at some time imprisoned in Ephesus is first suggested by 


the ruin of his "prison" pointed out there to-day. The 
suggestion is upheld by the existence of an early tradition 
that he was imprisoned there (Acts of Paul and Thecla). 
Paul's mention of Aristarchus, who was seized by the 
Ephesian mob, as a fellow-prisoner, his mention of fellow- 
prisoners in Rom. 16, and many other references to trouble 
in Ephesus make an imprisonment there highly probable. 
And immediately the possibility is fairly grasped, it appears 
how much better such an imprisonment explains many facts 
in connection with the letters to Philemon, to the Colossians, 
and to the Ephesians. Onesimus runs from Oolossse, not 
to Csesarea or to Rome, but much more naturally to Ephesus. 
Paul's vivid expectation of soon visiting Colossse is more 
intelligible. Epaphras, a man of Colossse, is then imprisoned 
in Ephesus, not in distant Rome. Tychicus we know defi- 
nitely to have been aiding Paul in Ephesus, and Aristarchus 
because of his championing Paul was imprisoned there. 
All three of these men are with Paul as he writes. 

The transfer of the authorship of the imprisonment epistles 
from Rome to Ephesus is an opinion that will progress but 
slowly even if a very great preponderance of evidence in its 
favor should be accumulated. Bible students will be slow 
to take leave of the mistress of the world and go even to 
the metropolis of Asia Minor. It has been a great delight 
to think of the gospel as spreading through the Pretorian 
guard and so into the Italian legions at large. But after 
all anything that makes the life and work of Paul more 
natural and clear must ultimately be welcomed. Indeed, 
we may say, the glories of old Rome are not by any means 
lost through the Ephesus theory from the portrayal of 
Pauline Christianity ; for Paul of course wrote his epistle 
to the Romans, and went there himself. On the other hand, 
is there not a great and new interest added to the picture 
of Paul's work in Asia Minor, and is there not fresh light 
thrown upon the imprisonment epistles by thinking of them 
as written, like the other epistles of Paul, from a point 
relatively close to the people for whom they were destined ? 
And is not the very fact that our theory thus brings these 


short epistles into the same class with Paul's other letters 
something of an argument in favor of the theory itself ? He 
was not so very far from Rome when he wrote Romans, not 
so very far from Corinth when he wrote Corinthians, proba- 
bly not so very far from Galatia when he wrote Galatians, 
not so very far from Thessalonica when he wrote Thessa- 
lonians. It would at least introduce the element of con. 
sistency in the matter of writing his letters from places 
reasonably near to their destination if we were willing 
to say that Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, and perhaps 
Philippians were written from Ephesus.